Beasts Of No Nation (2015) directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, starring Abraham Attah and Idris Elba
Significant Element: Realistic Portrayal Of War
Earlier this year I wrote an article discussing the portrayal of brutal realism in Game Of Thrones and my upset and confusion at the uproar following the rape of Sansa Stark. You can find a link to that article: Here. My main debate argued that specific television shows and films have the right to be able to portray events in a manner of realism, to highlight the brutality, disgust and horror of our world. Others disagree believing films and TV simply should present forms of entertainment that can appeal to the mainstream audiences. While I understand the main purpose of such media is to be entertaining, I feel as that film and TV are too important within society that they can no longer shy away from taboo subjects and context, and instead should find ways of discussing such themes and issues in a way that is both informing yet still correct within the overall narrative. Whether the rape of Sansa Stark was contextually accurate, or warranted, is another issue, yet if its purpose was to highlight the barbaric way women are treated in war-time, then Game Of Thrones most certainly succeeded, something the TV Academy must have agreed with, with that particular episode being nominated for the Best Writing Emmy, as well as the wider show winning the Emmy for Best Drama Series. Critically, such discussions need to take place, they help connect audiences with the wider world and show us the reality of human nature.
Beasts Of No Nations has struck a similar criticism, with many again highlighting that the film has taken the idea of realism too far, with shocking imagery and graphic impressions. I should highlight however, that while Game Of Thrones presents a fantastical setting, of fiction, Beasts of No Nations, while still a fictional story, is set very much in our real world, a representation of war within societies. I agree that while this does mean the director should be careful in how he explores issues, especially cause they are relevant today and many people around the globe are facing such injustices, rather than Game Of Throne’s more medieval style, he should not feel restricted in his artistic voice. There are a couple of key sequences I want to identify as an example of how Fukunaga has delicately but still realistically handled such subject matter.
The most obvious, and will probably be soon discussed as the most controversial, is the implied rape and sexual abuse of the films protagonist, a young african boy, who is recruited into a group of rebels as war devours the nation. Vulnerable and at times confused about the actions he must take to stay alive and survive, Agu is portrayed exactly as he should be, a fish out of water, a kid who is manipulated by the anger he feels towards those who killed his father and brother. As the film develops a fatherly bond is created between Agu and the Commandant, the leader of this specific battalion of rebels. Agu is soon seen to grow dependent on the man, looking to him for reasoning behind their actions, and while there are certain scenarios that will test Agu’s morality, one in particular I will discuss next, Agu always seems to do as he is ordered. And to me that is the point of Fukunagas discussion. Beasts Of No Nations is signficant and culturally important as it highlights that these boys, suppressed into such roles, have little choice in the actions they take. We often debate the impact environment can have on children, whether it is the upbringing of a child or their genes that truly impacts who they are, and Beasts Of No Nations makes a case for the former, that children will always find someone to idolize, to see as an example of righteousness. There is a definite appreciation in seeing the contrast between the films beginning where Agu is depicted as your stereotypical young boy, joyful and looking for every opportunity to make mischief, and around the middle, where Agu has most certainly become a soldier, smoking, swearing, and shooting people without a second thought. It is Agu’s environment that has changed him, as the film continues we hear less about his need to find his mother, and avenge his father and brothers death, but only are shown the child soldier, the boy now desensitized to violence. Fukunaga has developed a narrative that shows the overall impact of war on innocence and what one must do to survive and with that comes the idea of suppression. The rape or sexual abuse of Agu by the Commandant is definitely not unexpected, there a hints of it throughout the film, and while the audience is never shown it, it is heavily implied (very different to Game Of Thrones). In my opinion such a depiction of the reality of war is just. It is central to the films overarching principles, that war changes people, that war is another world altogether, Agu’s childhood has been suppressed by his cause, by his environment, and while such an act towards a youth is entirely wrong, it is not unexpected, it is the reality of war. Agu has become so desensitized to what is just and right, that he goes along with anything that will make him survive another day. This is not a story about rape but about the impact of war on characters. Similar to how Game Of Thrones is told, Beasts Of No Nations is more concerned with the effect of events on its characters than on the event itself. But each event is still presented with a distinction of realism. Fukunaga has depicted such an event in the most realistic yet still censored way he can. He does not present actual footage of the abuse, something that would have been too far due to the boy’s age, but makes it clear that this is a part of the normality of war. It is not right but it is still present. Agu’s character progression reflects this. Every little piece of abuse and every situation of split morality takes a toll on the boy, leading him to eventually breaking, seeking god, and questioning his role and life. But it is not til others begin rebelling that he can actually make a stand. And even when he does, he spares the life of the Commadant realising that there is light and that he can prove that, prove that he will find justice. As the end of the film nears, there is a sudden realisation, a sudden impact that hits the audience. This is not a film detailing war, but detailing a characters journey, showing that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, an incredible character study that should not be under looked.
One of the most interesting aspects of this film is its ability to show just how ignorant most audiences are, how westerners are often quick to ignore the reality of what is happening in the rest to the world, hiding behind the comfort and safety of their houses. There is one scene that presents this idea in an incredibly sudden but also vivid way, as UN reporters and photographers drive past the boys taking photos and yelling out questions. It’s a scene that clearly identifies the difference in cultures and works beautifully to present the idea that as an audience we need to be made aware of such events, we need to be able to understand what is happening in our world. It is easy enough to be ignorant of the reality of life, but Fukunaga is challenging his viewers to see the struggles and hardships innocent children are put through or forced into. One scene in particular presents such a challenge as Agu is ordered to kill a man. The Commandant explains how to in a detailed and visually flinching way, but it is the cameras focus upon Agus response that is the most potent, it highlights the questioning of survival. Agu knows that the Commandant will kill him if he doesn’t follow his orders, so Agu does as he must. It is grim but it is also from a narrative point of view, contextually accurate. Killing someone is the ultimate example of someones change, it highlights Agus change from the start of the film, and while it is graphic, again Fukunaga is more worried about the implications for the characters than the actual event. The Commandant’s authority and superiority is highlighted while Agu’s inferiority is also presented. These situations are all building blocks to a wider thematic discussion, on the mental resistance of humanity. How much can one child take and what will one do for survival. Some may argue that rape, and killings should not be used specifically for character development but to not highlight such events would be undermining the brutality and realism of war.
In conclusion while I believe that Beasts Of No Nations does highlight the reality of war in a way that is balanced, while still disturbing, yet not over the top, ultimately the film is more focussed upon the suppression of innocence, how war can strip people of their youthful spirit and humanity. While I would argue that releasing such a controversial and adult only film as Netflix’s first feature is maybe not the best marketing move, it does show that the station is willing to be relevant and not scared of such subject matter. Again like Game Of Thrones, audiences should be aware of what they are getting themselves into before viewing, censoring such ideas, and under developing such themes would be ignorant and disrespectful to those going through such challenges. Beasts of No Nations is able to instead find a way to create a narrative discussing the realism behind war, while focussing on the those it impacts and the paths they must follow.
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